Is Physical Education Essential?

Controversy erupted when a Florida lawmaker tried to eliminate the physical education requirement for middle school students in the state. While the bill had a logical motivation, many experts believe its implementation could be disastrous.

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Building Academic Muscles

Florida State Representative Larry Metz, a Republican, isn't an opponent of exercise. However, the bill he submitted recently would remove the mandate for Florida middle school children to take at least one semester of physical education each year. In defending the bill, Metz says that K-12 funding has been slashed in recent years. With fewer resources, he argues, schools should be putting academics first.

The physical education mandate only debuted in the fall of 2009. Its goal was to improve the health of middle school students in the face of growing obesity. Under the law, students can provide a letter from their parents that exempts them from physical education. The thousands of students who opted out pursued electives, such as choir and fine art classes. Metz suggests that it's more important that students have the freedom to choose their courses rather than have mandated exercise.

Against Doctor's Orders

The new Florida bill is not popular among health professionals. Everyone from pediatricians to the American Heart Association has condemned it. They note that middle school is a critical age for improving physical health. A plethora of data can be cited to support their case.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has grown by more than 300% in the past three decades. Over 30% of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. There is a long laundry list of health problems overweight children face. There are immediate effects, such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea and poor self-esteem. There are also long-term effects, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and many forms of cancer.

A Necessary Law

Despite the obesity epidemic, only six states require the 150 minutes each week of physical education that the National Association of Sports and Physical Education recommends. Furthermore, a 20-minute or more recess period is mandatory for elementary school children in just three states. Politicians like Metz may argue that while physical education is beneficial, it doesn't need to be mandated. Yet a recent study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that when exercise isn't mandated, it happens far less consistently.

It's true that schools are grappling with budget shortfalls and each requirement by the state can be a burden. However, the severity of the childhood obesity problem makes a physical education requirement as critical as a requirement for mathematics or science. A lack of those classes can doom a child to poor job prospects and financial instability. Yet without exercise, children may be doomed to a life of chronic health problems which they perpetually struggle to overcome.

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